Haters to the left could be Clarissa Harlowe's motto. Not only is she drop-dead gorgeous, obedient, and her rich grandpa's favorite, she's virtuous to boot. When the book opens, Clarissa's processing some major drama via letters back and forth with her BFF, Anna Howe. It turns out that Clarissa caught the eye of this totally cute dude named Richard Lovelace. Awesome, right?
Er, except Lovelace was supposed to be cozying up to Clarissa's sister, Arabella, and Arabella's not happy. Even worse, Clarissa's brother is holding onto a major grudge on Lovelace from his college days. If that's not juicy enough, James challenges Lovelace to a duel—because that's a totally normal response. Not. Lovelace easily wins, but is all "Cool it, dude. I like your sister so I'll spare your life."
Like we said, major drama. The cherry on top is that Clarissa's family is convinced that she's secretly passing notes with Lovelace because she's into him. And actually, she is. But not because she has a crush on him! She just wants to set him straight and get him to mend fences with her family, and…whatever, Clarissa. It doesn't help that Clarissa's dad wants to marry her off to Roger Solmes, this guy who's about as old, rich, and odious as they come.
Things get real when Clarissa's family decides to keep her locked in her room 24/7 until she caves and marries Solmes. When Clarissa spills the plan to Lovelace, he convinces Clarissa to bolt. Okay, he technically says his girl cousin will escort Clarissa away from her family's house, then tricks her into running away with him at the last second.
It's out of the frying pan and into the fire for Clarissa: remember, Lovelace is the kind of guy your mom warned you about. Obvi, Clarissa's family thinks she's a ruined woman. And it's not like Lovelace isn't trying his hardest to seduce Clarissa, but she's just too darn virtuous and Lovelace is just not the marrying type.
Unfortunately, Lovelace is one determined guy. He whisks Clarissa off to London, where one Mrs. Sinclair plans to help him orchestrate her ruin. Yeah, it's a little weird. Lovelace gets Clarissa a room at Mrs. Sinclair's place, which (spoiler alert!) is a brothel. Just to make it even more awkward, lots of the ladies living there are—ahem—Lovelace's ex-girlfriends. All of Lovelace's bros come to the whorehouse for a party, but they end up telling Lovelace to back off from his dastardly plan. One dude named Belford is particularly insistent that Lovelace stop being such a jerk.
Meanwhile, it's BFF Anna to the rescue. Anna and Clarissa have been writing to each other the whole time, much to Lovelace's irritation, and Anna is planning a jailbreak for Clarissa. Lovelace finds out about the plan and is super mad, but Clarissa still manages to escape a little later. Lovelace's servant, Will, is on it. He finds her and takes her right back to the whorehouse before she can bolt again. Nice try, Clarissa!
At this point, the book starts to get a little Prison Break. Clarissa keeps trying to escape, Lovelace keeps promising to marry her, and nothing really gets accomplished. Just when we think the dude might have reformed for good, it all goes sour. Mrs. Sinclair drugs Clarissa and Lovelace rapes her, cuing basically the most chilling line in all of eighteenth-century literature: "And now, Belford, I can go no farther. The affair is over. Clarissa lives."
When Clarissa wakes up, she goes temporarily mad. Lovelace sort of regrets what he did, but he still has some pretty cringeworthy lines about keeping her in his power—by marrying her for real. Clarissa isn't too keen on marrying her rapist, and she does manage to get away for good. But she's not doing too hot. Like, not eating and pretty much incapacitated in every way. Although Anna tries to convince Clarissa to A) take Lovelace to court or B) marry him, she doesn't want to do either. Actually, she's on death's doorstep. Around this time, the prostitutes have Clarissa falsely arrested and thrown in jail because they're jealous of her. What can we say—when it rains, it pours.
Belford (remember Lovelace's buddy who's really not that bad?) gains Clarissa's trust and gets her out of jail, but she's majorly wasting away. Since Clarissa's still at odds with her family, she puts Belford in charge of all of her affairs before she dies. She even buys herself a coffin, because why not? And sure enough, she dies after forgiving everyone who wronged her.
If this is when you're thinking The Bride will wreak her vengeance on everyone, that's not happening. But life's not all roses and lemon-drops for the rest of the Clarissa cast. Clarissa's cousin, Colonel Morden, challenges Lovelace to a duel and ends that dude. Clarissa's siblings end up with rotten spouses, and her parents kick the bucket soon after.
Only Anna and Belford escape: Anna, married, names her kiddo Clarissa—and Belford promises to put together all of Clarissa's letter as a cautionary tale to other unlucky ladies. Consider us warned.